Style and substance in the voice of John Henry Newman.
Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By EDWARD SHORT
When John Henry Newman died in 1890, English papers around the world singled out different aspects of his life and work for praise or censure, but on one point they were unanimous. As the obituarist of the Colonies and India put it, “We question whether there is a living writer who had a command of the English tongue at once so eloquent and incisive, though often ironical.” The force of Newman’s style may have been universally acknowledged, but the content of the writing was rarely paid the attention it deserves. Then, as now, Newman had many admirers and many detractors, but few true critics. Indeed, for many, insisting on the beauty of Newman’s style was a convenient way of ignoring the style’s content altogether.
There is a parallel of this in the way that Newman’s contemporaries tended to take up religion. In one of his greatest sermons, “Unreal Words” (1839), Newman observed how profession could become an evasion not only of the practice but even the apprehension of religion. “Let us never lose sight of two truths,” he exhorted his readers, “that we ought to have our hearts penetrated with the love of Christ and full of self-renunciation; but that if they be not, professing that they are does not make them so.” Similarly, effusing about the beauty of Newman’s prose style can never be a substitute for grasping the matter that the style presents.
If there is a tendency on the part of some to separate style from content in Newman’s work—instead of seeing them, as they need to be seen, as indivisible—it might stem from the example of two other prose stylists of the 19th century, John Ruskin and James Anthony Froude, whose styles often have a life of their own, quite independent from their content. Certainly, one does not have to enter into Ruskin’s attack on Renaissance Venice to enjoy the majestic music of The Stones of Venice or Froude’s defense of Henry VIII to find the prose of his Tudor histories spellbinding. But one cannot arrive at a just estimate of Newman’s prose without entering into the truths that the prose was written to impart. Newman was a great stylist because he had great things to say.
Newman is amusing on this subject in his The Idea of a University (1873), where he writes of how
In contrast to this “division of labor,” Newman was adamant that “thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one: style is a thinking out into language.”
One can open this superb anthology on nearly any page and find examples of how the brilliance of Newman’s style issues directly from the brilliance of what he has to say. On the worldly pseudo-Christianity that is as much a part of our society as it was of his, he speaks of “an existing teaching . . . built upon worldly principle, yet pretending to be the Gospel, dropping one whole side of the Gospel, its austere character, and considering it enough to be benevolent, courteous, candid, correct in conduct, delicate,—though it includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honor, no deep hatred of sin.”
Such a mundane religion puts Newman in mind of the far more unworldly Middle Ages, which his Protestant contemporaries were disposed to regard as lost in Roman error and corruption. For Newman,
Here, also, is a good example of the conversational character that Gerard Manley Hopkins commended in Newman’s work. “What Cardinal Newman does is to think aloud,” the poet discerned, “to think with pen and paper. . . . He seems to be thinking ‘Gibbon is the last great master of traditional English prose; he is its perfection; I do not propose to emulate him; I begin all over again from the language of conversation, of common life.’ ”
This was an astute insight because, for all of his dazzling attainments, Newman paid very close attention to “common life.” It was an expression of his deep respect for the claims of reality. Consequently, the limpidity of his prose is of a piece with the naturalness, the sincerity, the humility of the man himself. Dean Church, the author of what remains the greatest history of the Oxford Movement, made a number of observations in his obituary of Newman in the Guardian—an Anglican paper in the 19th century—which nicely corroborate Hopkins’s point.
If we recognize that Newman’s style is the natural efflorescence of his thought, we will also see that his thought is the expression of a very versatile personality. Editor Ian Ker does this versatility justice by distilling Newman’s vast output in terms of what he wrote as an educator, philosopher, theologian, preacher, and writer.
Thus, in the section about education, there are brilliant passages from The Idea of a University, demonstrating the perennial appeal of Newman’s educational insights, especially at a time when the incoherence of our own universities could not be plainer. In the philosophy section, there are choice extracts from A Grammar of Assent (1870), which provide a useful key to that otherwise difficult book. Then, Newman’s preaching is nicely epitomized by a generous sampling of his Plain and Parochial Sermons (1868). In the section on his theological writings, there are extracts from both his Anglican and his Roman Catholic periods, showing the striking cohesiveness of his theological work. And the splendid chapter on Newman the writer highlights not only his polemical but his satirical genius. From Newman’s caustic essay “The Anglo-American Church” (1839), for example, Ker includes that wonderful passage where Newman captures the essence of our refined Unitarians: “They want only so much religion as will satisfy their natural perception of the propriety of being religious. Reason teaches them that utter disregard of their Maker is unbecoming, and they determine to be religious, not from love and fear, but from good sense.”
Ker is to be commended for choosing these selections with such consummate care. There are also terse, shrewd, informative introductions to each of the sections. Regarding the section of extracts devoted to Newman the writer, for example, Ker observes: “Like Cicero, whom Newman greatly admired both as a controversialist and as a master of style, it is hardly possible to imagine Newman without his letters, so integral do they seem to his artistic and intellectual achievement. Not only does the corpus of correspondence provide a detailed and extended commentary on the published works, but it is in itself a marvelous manifestation of Newman’s powers as an ‘occasional writer.’ ”
Edward Short is the author of the forthcoming Newman and His Family (Bloomsbury).